Butch Jones joined Ivan Maisel earlier this week during his ‘Car Wash’ tour of ESPN’s studios in Bristol, CT to talk about his team, his outlook, and his goals for the future of Tennessee football. Butch was asked about the biggest challenges he faces with regard to turning his program into a winner.
His answer didn’t focus on recruiting, scheme, speed or strength, as one might have presumed – but instead on the ability to win tough games on the road.
“All of our schools have great fanbases, so you have to be a mentally tough football team to prove that you can win on the road in the SEC,” Jones said.
Ivan then shifted the focus to Tennessee fans (a favorite pastime of ESPN analysts), asking Jones if he felt Vol fans had done a good job of turning Neyland Stadium back into the type of place that teams hated to play in.
“Our fans have been outstanding and it started with our student body. When most programs are having student-body attendance issues, our student section attendance was up about 47 percent last year.
“We’ve made it a point to really become a fixture on campus. We are part of them. I’ll walk around campus, I want to communicate with our student body. It started there, but all our fans have been outstanding. Neyland Stadium is a great home-field advantage for us, all 102,455.”
It isn’t just lip service by Jones either.
Tennessee had the second largest increase in fan attendance in the SEC last season – only Kentucky’s was better – and if the student section attendance truly did increase by 47 percent then those students deserve a huge ‘attaboy’ for assisting that increase.
Thanks, in part, to those students, Neyland Stadium averaged 96,642 fans per game last season, which was good enough for second in the conference. Not bad for a program that was coming off back to back five win seasons with low expectations heading into 2013.
A lot of credit has to be given to Jones for those numbers, however. As he said, he put in the legwork to make sure UT students knew that they are part of the program. He has toured campus to talk with members of SGA, student interest groups, and sororities/fraternities in an attempt to get them to games. He also held a practice in the spring that only students were allowed to attend – a practice that closed with an impromptu dance party. That grass-roots approach looks like it will pay dividends for years to come.
For non-students, Jones has promised yet another open practice during fall camp, although the exact date has yet to be determined. Last fall’s open practice drew an estimated 39,000 people to Neyland Stadium on August 17th on a rain-soaked evening in Knoxville.
Thirty-nine thousand fans for a practice is a very impressive number, especially when you consider the weather, but Tennessee’s August practice actually drew more visitors than South Carolina, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Missouri, Vanderbilt or Florida could manage for their respective spring games.
Speaking of spring games, the Vols drew 61,706 in 2013 and a staggering 68,548 this year after yet another 5-7 season.
After Jones left Maisel’s show to continue his ESPN rounds, he was asked by SportsCenter anchor Kevin Negandhi if he felt Tennessee fans (see what I mean?) understood the current stage in the rebuilding process and if they would show patience by tempering high expectations.
“Our fans are outstanding. When you’re at the University of Tennessee, one of the most storied college football programs in the country, you always have high expectations. And that’s what you want as a recruit, as a player and as a coach. It’s exciting for them (Vol fans) because they get to watch now the transformation of these young players and watch them be raised. So, our fans have been great, and we’re looking forward to getting this thing started.”
Fan attendance numbers through roughly a year and a half under Butch Jones look promising for Tennessee, but imagine what those numbers will look like if Tennessee and Butch Jones start winning at a high rate.
And if things keep going the way they have been, one gets the sense that Jones may be right – it’s not a matter of if, but *when*.
“College football is all about timing,” Jones told Maisel. “We feel that Tennessee is the right place at the right time.”
I’ll venture a guess that a whole lot more than 102,455 are hoping he’s right.